Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who had previously directed humanitarian efforts in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, served as director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (OHRA) following the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He and his office were replaced after only one month by L. Paul Bremer, III and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "Essentially, I guess the first day I got to Baghdad, I was a lame duck," Garner tells FRONTLINE. Here, he describes his plan for stabilizing postwar Iraq, including his plans for de-Baathification and for dealing with the Iraqi army that were very different from the orders implemented by Bremer. He argues that these and other mistakes that led to the present insurgency were avoidable. "I think that we stood a chance," he says. "We would at least have [had] an opportunity to have a different outcome." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 11, 2006.
Tell us about the call you received to head ORHA. ...
... I was in Manhattan at a restaurant getting ready to go give an end-of-year report of our company CEO, and I got a call from Gen. [Ronald D.] Yaggi in DoD [Department of Defense] and OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. He said, "Hey, we're considering asking you to come back and put together a staff that, should we go to war in Iraq, would do the postwar work." He said, "I need to tell you up front that you probably will never deploy to Iraq," because at that point, [it was looking like it would be] somebody with name recognition, probably a former governor. I said: "Look, I'm a president of a company that's got over 1,000 people in it. I spent 35 years in the military. I've left my wife many times. I don't think I can really do that."
Then I guess either later that day or the next day, [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith called me and said the secretary said, "If you don't take this job, you have to come personally explain to me and [then-CENTCOM Commander] Gen. [Tommy] Franks why you're turning it down." So I went in to see him. After all that I said, "Look, if I can get a leave of absence from my company, and I get permission from my wife, I'll do this."
I went back. The company gave me a four-month leave of absence. My wife never said no, but she never said yes either. So I guess toward the end of January, we started this little adventure.
So you pulled together some old hands and people you had dealt with for many years. People kid about you guys as being "space cowboys," the over-the-hill gang.
Yeah, we kind of were. We're all in our 60s. ... I told Rumsfeld before I left, I said, "You know what we're going to get? We're going to get the C-team," because we would get everybody that had been unloaded the last three years. But that was absolutely wrong. We got really absolutely magnificent people. ... They were all A-team people. …
By the third week of February, we'd grown to over 100 people. At that point, we conducted what the Army calls a "rock drill." We went over to Fort McNair, to National Defense University, and ... we brought in all the plans that had been done by everyone that had done plans in the interagency and assistant secretaries from the interagency. We spent two intense days, about 12 or 13 hours a day, going through all the plans. ... From that point on, we really focused on all the problems we had found in that two-day planning and review process that we went through.
Did it seem to you that Rumsfeld and others understood what you needed to do over there, that they defined specifically what the objectives were, what your role was going to be?
No, I don't think they [understood] that, because a lot of that had been somewhat, in the broadest terms, outlined in the presidential directive that came out on the 20th or 21st of January, just before we put the organization together. That loosely defined what we were to do.
The CENTCOM staff had defined a lot of things that they were going to do and some follow-up things for the civilian effort. Really, our group was the group put together to coalesce all those and develop an operational plan for how the postwar work would begin to unfold.
[Northern Region Coordinator for the Coalition Provisional Authority] Dick Naab told us that the DoD was constantly interfering, assigning people that you didn't want. What's your take on that?
I spent a lot of time every day while I was in the Pentagon talking to people who had been sent down by somebody in DoD to talk to [me], ... but I didn't see that as disruptive. I saw that as the leadership in DoD having a brilliant flash: "Hey, I'll betcha Garner needs this guy. I'll call him and have him go in and talk with him." It's just, you know, the price of doing business.
Your overview of the problems that some of the folks in DoD had with State Department people. Looking back on it now, was that a problem?
Oh, I think it was a problem, sure. Any time you have the clash of titans and you're caught up in the middle of that, it's somewhat of a problem. That's one of the reasons that I wanted to get out of Washington as soon as I could. We left as soon as I could get everybody together and get them through the training required by CENTCOM and get enough people together, have enough planning and all that. We got out of Washington and went to Kuwait. ... We left on Sunday, the 15th of March.
[People have told us] that DoD was not willing to have assumptions challenged … and this led to really having no base plan to leave with. ...
... You never have enough time to plan. We really only had about six or seven weeks. ... Our planning time was really almost condensed to the time we spent in Kuwait. ...
Yeah, I think probably DoD did not like their assumptions challenged. But I don't think any of the interagencies like their assumptions challenged. I don't think it's just DoD. … Any time during my career, I think if you sliced into an agency, you start to challenge your assumptions, you get a lot of pushback.
Rumsfeld is incredibly hardworking, incredibly intelligent, incredibly determined, and a very forceful man. You're not going to get your way unless you stand up to him. If you stand up to him, you'd better have your facts right. But I think that's fair.
Define for us [then-National Security Adviser] Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice's role and the NSC [National Security Council], the interagency process and such. What was her involvement? How did you see her? What were your dealings with her like?
I went to her every Wednesday afternoon with the briefing, which is essentially an update, ... but usually I'd go another time during the week, too. If something came up, I'd go over there and brief her. She's a very intelligent woman. She's very supportive.
The problem is, at that time, everybody had 1,000 things they were doing, and the war was getting ready to start. A lot of focus was not so much on what I was doing, but more on what Tommy Franks was doing, and probably rightfully so. ...
This is a bad answer, but it was focused on an awful lot of things. But the three things that worried us the most was the setting of the oil fields on fire, because [Saddam Hussein] had done that in Kuwait during the first Gulf War; large number of displaced people, refugees as a result of the war itself; or him using chemical weapons against the Shi'a or the Kurds, which he had done before several times. [Another] thing was a breakout of an epidemic, because there's a pretty high incidence of cholera in that part of the world, especially in Iraq, and we knew that after the bombing started, we'd have sewage problems. They had fresh-water problems; they had all kind of sanitation problems and all that. So that kind of thing can break out. ...
We also knew that no one would have been paid in the last two or three months. We knew we had to pay the civil servants to get them back to work, to run the ministries. We had to pay the army, had to pay the police force. We wanted to bring them back. Then you have pensioners, an awful lot of pensioners; we had to pay those. We had plans to rapidly begin the back pay and then get everybody back to work. We had plans to rapidly start the ministries' function in Baghdad, because everything focuses on Baghdad, just like in this country it's focused on D.C. ...
How big a concern is security?
Huge, huge, huge concern. We realized when we went through the rock drill that we wouldn't have enough security. CENTCOM at that point said, "We're going to really be strapped for forces." ...
On April 9, , the famous statue of Saddam falls. Where are you? What do you think?
I was in Kuwait. I think, "Hey, this is great; this is really good." I was a little apprehensive about what the reception would be as we got into Iraq. I didn't think the reception by the Sunnis would be good. In fact, I knew it wouldn't be good. I was both fearful of the reception [by] the Shi'a because [of] the fact that we had left them hanging at the end of the first Gulf War. I knew the reception by the Kurds would be great. But so I thought, "Well, this is better than at least I had anticipated." Of course that was a false judgment at that time. ...
You go into Iraq. Tell us the story. What did you see?
... On [April] 20, I went to Baghdad with a small team, about eight people, I guess. I already had [USAID's] Dr. Skip Burkle in Baghdad -- I'd sent him two weeks before -- who's been on every humanitarian crisis over the last 20 years. I called him and said, "Skip, what I want to do while I'm there, I want to look at the hospitals, and I want to look at what is the status of the sewage facilities." Then I called [Allied Land War Commander Lt. Gen.] Dave McKiernan and said: "I want your guys to get me out into the electrical grid. I want to look at that."
[On April 20], I went there that day, and I looked at those three things. The next day, on the 21st, I was going up to northern Iraq to see [Kurdish leaders Jalal] Talabani and [Massoud] Barzani over this -- they were going set up an interim government. ... Talabani and Barzani and I are old friends from the first Gulf War, and we sat down, had a very candid conversation. I said: "I can't let you guys set up an interim government, but what I can do is let you put together a leadership group that becomes the face of leadership for the Iraqi people. If that works, we can transition that into an interim government. But it will be under U.S. authority, a coalition authority."
Talabani, who speaks better English than Barzani, said, "That's what we want anyhow." He said, "What we have is a group that initially was put together by [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad." See, Zal had been working with these people about a year and a half, and they all like Zal; they trusted Zal. So I said, "OK, who's the group?" He said, "Well, it's the two of us" -- Talabani and Barzani -- "[former Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi, [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi, [Adnan] Pachichi, [former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-]Jaafari, and [Abdel Aziz al-]Hakim. I said, "I've got two problems with that." I said: "The first problem is, everyone you've named except you two is really an outsider at this point. They're all expatriates. And you two are Kurds." And he said: "I understand that. We'll bring in a Christian and somebody else. We'll bring those names to you, a nominee."
And I said, "The second problem I have with that is Hakim." I said, "Hakim's too Iranian." And Talabani, in his own style, put his hand over my knee and leaned over and he said, "Jay, it's better to have Hakim inside the tent than outside the tent." And I said: "Well, I think that's good advice. So we'll keep Hakim." I said: "OK, I want you to get all those guys together. I want you in Baghdad in seven days. I want you to set up where you're together and you meet. And I want all your deputies in one location so that your deputies can be connected communication-wise with my headquarters and our civil administration development. Let's begin to have a face of leadership for the Iraqi people."
So seven days, they were all there. They met. I met with them many times. But I met with them, and every day or so I would write something for them to put out. Usually Talabani or Allawi or one of the others would put it out over the radio. ...
I get back in the palace, either the night of the 23rd, 24th, and it's kind of in shambles. And Bates -- [Gen.] Jerry Bates -- has gotten there, and he's got the 250 or 260 of our people, and they're all trying to find a place to sleep. There's no bathrooms; there's no running water or anything. ... This kind of is a mess.
The phone rings, and I pick it up, and it's Secretary Rumsfeld. He says: "Hey, I'm calling just to tell you what a great job you're doing. It looks like things are really moving. Watched everything going on, and just keep up the good work and all that. And by the way, I wanted to let you know that today the president chose Jerry Bremer to be his presidential envoy, and he'll be coming over there." And he said, "I don't know when the president's going to announce that, but it could be today, or it could be tomorrow. It can be next week."
I said, "Fine." I said, "Really, what I'd like to do is put that off till about July, because I've got a lot of moving parts here that I think that I can get solidified by July." And he said, "Well, I don't have any control over that." He says, "I don't think I can give you that." And I said, "Well, then, when he gets here, I'll come on home." He says: "I don't want you to come home. I want you to stay there with him a while."
I said: "Mr. Secretary, I'm sure that Jerry Bremer and I will get along fine. That's not the problem." I said: "The problem is the people below us. You can't have the guy who was in charge staying with the new guy in charge, because the people below you, they don't know where their loyalties are." I said, "The best thing that can happen to him and me, really, is for me to leave after he gets here."
And he said, "Well, you need to transition him." I said, "I'll stay as long as it takes to transition." So that was that. Essentially, I guess the first day I got to Baghdad, I was a lame duck.
Why the decision change that quickly? You hadn't done anything yet.
I don't know. I don't know -- although there were always plans for me to be a temporary guy, ... and that's fine. The problem I had is, I thought that by early July that we'd have a lot of things in place that would begin to provide the structure of government, that type thing.
At that point, what had you accomplished? What was in the works?
The only thing in the works at that time [was] we were trying to locate the [Iraqi] army and bring it back. We had a call out to the police to bring them back. We were setting up to pay the civil servants and the police and the pensioners.
We were trying to re-establish the ministries. The problem with the ministries was that there were 22 or 23 ministries. We were going to use 20 of them, and of the 20 that we're going to use, 17 of those buildings had been destroyed. There are no excess facilities in Baghdad, so the ministry people couldn't come back to work. So if you wanted to start the Ministry of Agriculture again, you had to go out and find another [building], because they didn't have anywhere to come to work to. So we put out calls. It took us about a week to get a nucleus of every ministry where we could begin to try to start the functions of that ministry again and then begin to pay people.
That problem was exacerbated by the fact that all the civilian communications had been taken out during the war. So, say to start the schools, we had to call in the school officials from every major city, call them in, bring them into Baghdad, sit them down in the palace, tell them: "School's going to start on this day. We want you to let them out for their vacation on this day," that type thing. Then you send them all back. And if you change your mind on that, you had to bring them back again. There's no way to communicate. It was a manual operation from the day we got there, so it was very slow to get things going. ...
Tommy Franks meets with his commanders April 16, a few days before you go in. He's telling his commanders … within 60 days, there will be an Iraqi government set up. What was you guys' opinion of that Washington and military expectation?
... [Franks] was always promised a large constabulary force from allies. He was promised by DoD or by the administration -- I'm not sure [which]. He was relying on me to bring back the Iraqi army, and we're talking about 250,000 soldiers.
I think in his mind, in his planning process, he probably had 250,000 to 300,000 troops that he had been told he was going to have; when he was issuing those orders, those were the back of his mind. I never talked to Tommy about this, but I know him well enough that I know he wouldn't have said, "Pull immediately out of Iraq." I think he was counting on that. I know [CENTCOM Commander Gen.] John Abizaid was counting on that, and I know Dave McKiernan was counting on it. And I was counting on it. So the constabulary forces never materialized, and the decision was made not to bring back the Iraqi army. So those two things evaporated.
So that when we got there, I went down to Al Hillah, south of Baghdad, with [ORHA Regional Coordinator for South Iraq Gen.] Buck Walters. We went around to ... Gen. [James] Conway's, with his Marines, and talked to several of his battalion commanders and a couple of his company managers. I had lunch with one of the company managers. His company manager was getting ready to pull out of his location, which was in Najaf, and he said, "You know, sir, we've got a big problem here." I said, "Yeah, what is it?" He said: "As we pull out, the real fundamental Shi'a are pulling right in behind us. I'm going to tell you, they're Iranians. They're not Iraqis; they're Iranians. They're filling up everything that has to with quality of life. They're taking over the schools; they're taking over the medical facilities; they're taking over the electricity; they're taking over security; they're taking over everything. Anything that controls the quality of life, they own as soon as we get out of here."
I said, "Wow." So I had a State Department guy, very good Arabist named Mike Cathor, spoke incredible Arabic. He's been studying the Middle East all his life. I said: "Mike, I want you to go down there and spend the day and walk around and talk to everybody. [Find out], is this really happening?" So he came back that evening; he said: "Boy, it's worse than he told you. We're really being infiltrated by an Iranian-influenced Shi'a element that is controlling the quality of life."
I called Rumsfeld that night and said: "Hey, we don't need to do this. Here's what's happening." And I told him. And he said: "Oh. Well, that's interesting. Thank you very much." Now, he never said he wasn't going to stop it; he never said he was going to send more, anything like that. He just said, "Thank you very much."
Day or two later, I was talking to [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell, and I said, "You did a real good job firing a thunderbolt over the Syrians, but now we need to fire one over the Iranians, because we're really getting infiltrated by Iranians here." And he said, "Well, thanks for that." ...
[Are we beginning to see] the seeds of an insurgency, while at the same time -- the end of April -- Rumsfeld is off-ramping the 1st Cavalry?
Within days after I got to Baghdad, I'd say on the 25th, 26th or 27th, John Abizaid said, "Hey, we've got a guerrilla war going on here, and we'd better get control of this thing." ... So Abizaid was up front, knew about that. ...
Was it a blind spot back at the Pentagon with Rumsfeld? He didn't get what was going on on the ground?
I don't know what went on back at the factory that caused these things. ...
At some point, your aide, [Ron] Adams, goes back to Washington, ... back to the DoD, and is surprised to find out there's some plans for the postwar out of Feith's offices that you guys didn't know about.
Yeah, he called me, and he said, "There's a lot of stuff, plans going on here that you and I have never seen, none of our team has ever seen." And I said: "Well, can you get them and send them to us? Or can you read them and tell us about it?" He said, "I don't know; I'll try." He never was able to do that. So I said: "Ron, we are where we are. We'll deal with what we've got, the resources we have." I don't know what those plans were. I never saw them; Ron Adams never saw them.
But these were postwar plans?
That's what Ron said. We're talking hearsay now. It's what he told me. I guess that's what he's been told, because I don't think Ron ever saw them.
But you guys were in charge of the postwar.
We were. Supposed to be.
Why did DoD not want to give you the plan?
I have no idea. ... At that point, I had so many problems that that was something going on back there, and I had an immediate problem right there in Iraq, specifically in Baghdad, and I was trying to deal with those things.
The way it's been told is that the neocons at the Pentagon didn't really want you guys to get too involved with setting things up. What they really wanted was the power to be handed off very quickly to Chalabi. That's the story. What are your thoughts about that?
That wasn't going to happen on my watch. I think that inside the Pentagon, inside the Beltway, that Chalabi was the favorite candidate. I don't think he was with Secretary Rumsfeld, because I never heard Rumsfeld say that. In fact, I heard Rumsfeld say several times: "I don't have a candidate. The best man will rise." But certainly he was the darling of Doug Feith and [former Defense Policy Board Chairman] Richard Perle and probably [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, perhaps the vice president. I'm not sure.
I didn't meet Chalabi until April 15. I met him in Nasiriyah, ... and it was the first meeting we'd had. Now, we'd talked on the telephone before. But I immediately didn't like him. He immediately didn't like me either. I never had anything against Chalabi up till that point, but he was never my candidate.
I felt the same thing that Rumsfeld did: You don't have a number one guy; there's nobody that stands out. So over time, I thought the right person will begin to stand out, and we can start wrapping our new government, our interim stuff around the right person. That's why I brought the seven of them together, because I wanted them to neutralize each other until we could sort through that and see who the best candidate was among them.
But Chalabi and I didn't get along at all. To this day, I think Chalabi worked both sides of the street. I think he was working with Iranians. He was lying to us. I don't think he's a good man. I think he's a bad man. ...
Yes. I'm walking down the hallway, and Robin Raphel, Ambassador Robin Raphel, says, "Have you seen this?" She has a piece of paper. I said: "No. What it is?" She says, "De-Baathification order." I said, "Wow." So I read it real quick, there in the hall. I said, "This is too deep." She said, "This is why you have to stay here." And I said, "Well, let me go talk to Ambassador Bremer."
So I walked down, and Charlie [the former Baghdad station chief] was coming across the hallway, CIA guy, great guy, and I said, "Hey, Charlie, have you read the de-Baathification [order]?" And he said: "Yeah, that's why I'm here. Let's go in and talk to the ambassador."
We went in, and we talked to Ambassador Bremer for a few minutes. I said, "You know, this is too deep." I said: "Give Charlie and I about 45 minutes to an hour. Let us digest this thing, and then let us recommend some changes to you, and come back here, and we'll get Donald Rumsfeld to see if we can't soften this a bit."
And he said: "These are the directions I have. I have directions to execute this." And I said, "Well, I think it's too deep." And he said, "Well, it's the directions we have, and we're going to execute those."
So I said, "Well, Charlie, what do you think?" To the best of my memory, Charlie said, "Well, if you do this, you're going to drive 40,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground by nightfall. The number is closer to 50,000 than it is [to] 30,000."
Bremer again said, "I understand what you're saying. I understand that's your opinion, but I have my directions. I have directions [to execute] these orders," which told me, I thought, he didn't have any choice. It was another one of the decrees he brought over in a briefcase that he was told to execute -- although, I was told in his book, he said that was his decision. But ... I think that was one of the things he was told to do. He gets blamed for it, but I don't really think the blame is [his].
Were you worried about it?
[What] I thought was going to happen was you wouldn't be able to bring back the government in a functional capability, because all the talent was in those first three or four levels of the Baath Party. Hell, you live in Boston. You take out the first three or four levels of government in Boston, see how well your electricity runs and how well the traffic lights work, and everything else goes.
What was your impression of Bremer?
I thought Ambassador Bremer was one of the hardest working men I've ever been around in my life. I think he gets a lot of blame for a lot of things that are not his fault. I was only with him two and a half, three weeks, but the guy works 16 to 20 hours a day. He stayed over for 13 months, doing his best for our government and for the Iraqi people.
During that time, he produced an excellent document, the Transitional Administrative Law [TAL]. There's a lot of pluses to Bremer's time there that he hasn't gotten credit for, and there's a lot of negatives that he's shouldered that probably aren't his to shoulder.
For instance, CPA Order No. 1?
CPA Order No. 2 [dissolving the Iraqi army] comes out soon after. ... What were your expectations of how you guys were going to deal with the Iraqi army, and how does this order, then, strike you?
Well, our initial plan when we were in Washington, and initially in Kuwait, was that this war went in much like the first Gulf War, where you have thousands of POWs, maybe hundreds of thousands. ... The army was about 400,000, so from that, we would bring between 150,000 and 250,000 back. We wanted to keep them in their unit structures, because they had already had a command-and-control system. They had vehicles, what was left. They knew how to take orders, and they had the basic skill sets to do the things you need to do in early reconstruction of a country. So they were a labor force, and they provide a certain amount of security, like guard static locations -- guard buildings, guard ammo dumps or displaced ammunition, that type of thing. ...
By the 15th of May, we had a large number of Iraqi army located that were ready to come back, and the Treasury guys were ready to pay them. When the order came out to disband, [it] shocked me, because I didn't know we were going to do that. All along I thought we were bringing back the Iraqi army. ... Why we didn't do that, I don't know.
Bremer and [CPA Director of National Security and Defense Walter] Slocombe, to this day, still say: "We couldn't bring it back. It had gone; it disappeared."
It had disappeared, but we had relocated a lot of it. If we had started bringing it back, the rest would have followed.
The other thing that that process was going to do for us, it was going to allow us to identify the real leaders for the future Iraqi army. ...
So how big a mistake was that?
It depends on who you talk to. If you go talk to Talabani and Barzani or Allawi or Chalabi, they'll tell you that that was actually the right thing to do, because they said it was too soon. ...
I think it was a mistake, but we'll never know.
[Do you think Order No. 2, along with de-Baathification, led to the insurgency?]
The problem you have there is, with that order, you suddenly tell somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 soldiers that they're out of jobs, and they're all still armed. Now, whether they became terrorists, we don't know. But to me, that's just not a good beginning. Sun Tzu says you don't want to go to bed at night with more enemies than you woke up with that morning. Well, we went to bed with a whole lot more enemies that night than we had begun the day with.
But again, I don't fault Ambassador Bremer for that. I think that was another decree that he brought over in his briefcase; I think he was told to do that. Now, that idea may have germinated with Walt Slocombe or somebody on his staff, but it had to get approved [in Washington] somewhere. That's another incredible decision of magnitude that I just don't think that would have been invested in [Bremer]. It had to be made over here. ...
There's a story out there that you started dealing too much on the political side; that there was talk already of elections, and that worried some people.
That's true. I did immediately start talking to them about elections: "Let's get elections started. Let's start writing a constitution. Let's get a leadership group here. Let's transition if we can. Let's transition that into interim government. Let's start handing over functions back to the Iraqi people," etc., etc. Yeah. ...
And did that worry anybody in Washington?
Beats the hell out of me. I don't know. Nobody ever called me and said, "Hey, don't do this."
But did you get the feeling?
No, I didn't get the feeling till I got the call from Rumsfeld saying: "Hey, Jerry Bremer's going to be your replacement. The president just made that decision." I said, "Fine." I thought, well, they pulled the string a little earlier than I thought they would. And then when I said, "Hey, how about letting me stay till July because I've got all these things going?," [he] said, "Don't have any control over that." ... He said: "This has always been the plan, Jay. This has always been the plan, to bring somebody in." I said, "Well, that's true." ...
If you had to do it all over again?
I would do it, but I would cut a different deal. I didn't cut a deal. I just accepted the challenge, is all. But I'd get a contract the next time, and my contract would say, "I want X number of days before I get replaced, and I want that agreed to by everybody, or I won't take the job." And I think X number of days, in my mind, is set somewhere between 120 and 180 days.
Because I think if I'd had 120 days, I could have gotten a hell of a lot of stuff done. But you never know. I thought I could, and I left thinking I could. ... If we had been quicker on getting people back to work, if we had been quicker on getting people involved in the governmental process, I think that we stood a chance. We would at least have an opportunity to have a different outcome.
We had a window of opportunity?
I think we had a window of opportunity.
What happened to the window?
I don't know. I think that we made some mistakes. I think we never had a force level high enough to provide the amount of security that we needed. I think we should have started the constitutional process right away, and we should have shaped that constitutional process. ... But the problem is that we just got too involved. ...
We could have been very involved and started [the constitutional process]. Instead, we shifted from the Iraqi perception of us being liberators to the Iraqi perception of us being occupiers, and they resented that. The Iraqis are good people, and they're nice people, but they're fiercely independent, probably more so than we are. So I don't think you can take on the mantle of an occupier and last very long. ...
Tell us the story of your leaving the country. What happens? It's not the easiest trip back. ...
Yes, that's a great story. I went over with my team on a charter flight. I got my charter flight to Kuwait City. When I come home, when I fly back, I fly back commercial, ... so I automatically go into the computer as a guy coming to the United States from the Middle East with a one-way ticket.
Every time I come through to get my ticket, I get the little red number down there. So they take me. I mean, they do everything. They strip-search everything. I understand that. They don't do it anymore, but it took about two years to get past that process. ...
You get home and debrief the president. Tell us just a little bit about that.
Well, I come home, and I go see Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is a very gracious guy. ... We go see the president. I walked up, and the president held out his hand. I took his hand. I briefed him before I went up. I said: "Mr. President, you don't really have time for this, and all I want to do is shake your hand and thank you for the opportunity to serve. Now I'm going to get out of here so you can do the nation's business."
He kind of pulled me so he could put his [arm] around my shoulder. He said: "No, you're not. You're going to come inside here and talk to me." We went in a room, sat down, and he talked to me. The president is a very personable, nice guy. He's a good person. It was just a nice little session.
Just before I left, though, I said: "Before I go, Mr. President, let me tell you that I had that opportunity to work with Ambassador Bremer for about three weeks. I think he has an incredible work ethic and [is] incredibly intelligent, and he's going to do a magnificent job." The president looked at me, and I said, "You made an excellent choice in that selection." He looked at me kind of quizzically, and he said: "I didn't choose him. Rummy chose him, just like he did you." I felt bad. I said, "Now, Rumsfeld told me the president chose him, and that's why he couldn't change when he got over." So I don't know who chose Bremer. I don't know if the president did it or if Rumsfeld did. Rumsfeld told me the president did; the president told me Rumsfeld did it. It doesn't matter. ...
The insurgency starts heating up during the fall. I know you weren't there, but what is your opinion of why it took us so long to understand what was going on?
Well, I don't think it did. Certainly Abizaid and McKiernan and [Gen. William] Scott Wallace and Conway, they all understand what was going on in April, and they begin to take measures against that. The problem, I think, is the force was too thin to do everything that they needed to do. ...
I think that what happened here is in DoD and in the administration, everybody was focused on the war. They were focused on regime change, and that took all of their energy. I wasn't a central focus of them at that time, because the spotlight wasn't on me yet. ...
But did they miss the window of opportunity in a lot of ways because that focus was there too late?
That's a yes-and-no answer. The answer is yes, we missed an opportunity because we should have started the process earlier; we should have had a longer time to plan; and we should have had agreed-upon objectives that we were going to do in postwar.
The answer is no if those objectives weren't ones that we could accomplish, and I think one of them is taking democracy and forcing it through the top down. I don't think you can do that to people that have never had democracy, that type of thing.
It depends on how realistic your expectations are for what you're going to accomplish when you're there and on what time frame you think you need to accomplish those. My goal was to accomplish a lot of governmental and infrastructure things in the shortest period of time and have as much hands-off as possible to the Iraqis to govern themselves.
How realistic were the expectations of Washington?
I don't know. I think the way you grade that is Monday morning quarterbacking. ... But if our expectation was to be greeted [as] liberators, that wasn't going to happen. I read something recently where the expectation was to turn the government over to the Iraqis in just a matter of days and pull the troops out of there. Well, that ain't going to happen. Once we went in, I thought we'd be there for five or six years. ...
And there's also the issue of reinventing the wheel -- putting you guys in there with some autonomy, putting Bremer in there with some autonomy. How big a problem was that?
I think it was a huge problem, because I think what you do, you don't have stability. The one thing you want when you're trying to do nation-building is you want stability among the nation builders. So I don't think we ever had real stability. I don't think Ambassador Bremer had stability because they kept changing out his team on him.
Then the other thing is they changed out the military team. You had Dave McKiernan and a land component commander with the best staff I've ever seen in my 35 years of military [experience]. They're all general officers. They know what to do. They're can-do guys that have been working together for a year and a half. They know how each other thinks, and they make things happen.
So overnight, ... he's picked them up, [flown] out, and put Rick Sanchez and 5th Corps. Rick Sanchez is the most junior three-star we now have in the Department of Defense. And this is no hit on Rick. I used to be the deputy commanding general of the 5th Corps. I know how small that staff is. You put them over to do the hardest job the nation's faced thus far in this century? That doesn't make sense.
Then ... you have this continual movement of everything when we should have just gone in, locked things down and stayed where we were, and everybody stayed there till we got the job done.
[In your view, did Ambassador Bremer accomplish the things he set out to accomplish in his seven-step plan?]
I think he accomplished the things he laid [out] himself to accomplish. Now, you might not agree with the timeline, think, "Well, we should have done this sooner, and we should have done ..." or something, but he laid out a plan of direction for the organization, and by the time he got on an airplane, they had accomplished those things. ...
Where do you think we are right now?
I think we're at the beginning steps of a civil war, or pretty close to it. ... We never fully realized the religious violence that there is over there among the Shi'a and Sunni. How you get your arms around that, I'm not sure. I think that there's still a chance, although it's diminishing every day. ...
We haven't done what we need to do to. ... Number one, federalism. Hell, we started out with federalism. It was called the 13 states and the Articles of Confederation. It worked. Number two is get the youth employed. You've got over a million [new] youth every year. Where do the terrorists come from? They come from that age group. Take a page out of FDR's book and do the WPA [Works Progress Administration] thing. Infusing money into the economy -- we've done that throughout the history of our relation. Make the resources of the nation owned by the people of the nation. Take and give the people part of the revenues from the oil system. We do that in Alaska.
There's all kinds of things that we do here or have done here that we could have done over there that would have been a huge, positive thing, and we didn't do it. Nobody read U.S. History 101. ...
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